From Noir to War

By Gary Foss | June 5, 2023

From Noir to War

Tales of crime, espionage, and intrigue are both timeless and irresistible. Characters brought to life in the ’30s and ’40s became archetypes of cinema that still resonate today. We spoke to costume designers Catherine Adair, Betsy Heimann, and Justine Seymour about their recent period projects set in the genre-defining time between the two World Wars.

The Gum Shoe

Philip Marlowe & Perry Mason

As tough and trampled as his leather soles, the detective turns over rocks and stares unflinching at what is revealed. He may cut corners, but at the end of the day has a code and knows when to put his foot down. For season 2 of Perry Mason, costume designer Catherine Adair finds the titular character in transition. Mason (Mathew Rhys) was a private detective in season 1 and is now a lawyer, but is still dealing with shell shock and remnants of his life before the war. “My assistant designer David Matwijkow and I found an early-period 1930s suit perfect for Matthew’s character. With the classic shoulder seams of the time sloping from the side of the neck down the shoulder blade and the less pronounced shoulder padding that predates the structured look more associated with the late ’30s and into the ’40s. We copied the suit in vintage fabric we found at Western Costume Company that had the ideal heavier weight and texture perfect for the role and film noir feel. Our aim throughout was to anchor the costumes in reality, more to reveal character than to draw attention to themselves.”

In an update of the noir classic, the violence is grittier, the politics more stark, and the characters are portrayed with an emphasis on realism. Betsy Heimann’s take on detective Philip Marlowe is rooted in the tenets of the genre. “It was important for him to be an everyman. I went with a classic 1938–39 three-piece suit with a fuller leg, a shorter jacket, and the hat had a slightly higher crown. I love the way wool absorbs the light. He was very of the period.” The result is an evocative silhouette that is as recognizable walking down the street as stepping from the shadows.


The Black Widow

Clare Cavendish, Marlowe

Dressed to kill and as dangerous as she is stylish. The Black Widow is a villain even a hero can love, but when the time is right, she’s ready to strike. Heimann explains, “When Clare (Diane Kruger) first appears, she has a lily on her dress. She reeks of money and Marlowe is trying very hard not to fall into her trap, but he can’t help getting intoxicated by the perfume.” Later the character appears in a sleek gold lamé dress with frog closures at the neck. “That’s when she’s setting her final trap. She’s beautiful and entrancing until she gets you in her web.” Her transformation is completed in a black suit, black hat, and silver gun.


The Grand Dame

Dorothy Quincannon, Marlowe

Mother, matriarch, and mastermind, the Grand Dame is accustomed to getting her way. She knows where all the bodies are buried because she might have planted a few of them herself. “I wanted Dorothy (Jessica Lange) to appear very soft. A few of the dresses you see are either very silky or chiffon with prints,” Heimann explains. This pretense hides the true strength and ruthlessness of the character. “She’s a snake in the grass. She’s got this soft exterior, but inside she’s a killer.”


The Miscreant

Floyd Hanson, Marlowe

Anyone who thinks crime doesn’t pay isn’t doing it right. Everyone has a dark side and that’s where the Miscreant comes in. He’ll make your dreams come true, for a price. To portray the secret illicit club operator, it was important that his costumes hide his role with perfect timing. Heimann explains, “In the beginning I put a light gray suit on Floyd (Danny Huston) because it’s very country clubby and you didn’t really know who he is. Is he good? Bad? He could go either way, so hopefully it is a surprise when you discover he’s the bad guy. Then he’s the classic Sidney Greenstreet villain in the dinner jacket with black pants.”


The Working Man

Paul Drake, Perry Mason

Respect is earned, but some people have to earn it the
hard way. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) has by the second season lost his job as a policeman and has run into hard times. But the character remains a man with pride. “The only thing that Paul has left is his integrity and his dignity. There would have to be a very good reason for him to dress inappropriately. His wife knows how to sew, so they would’ve had a fairly decent closet for that time period and from his days as a policeman. He’s going to present himself as professionally as possible. That’s all he’s got left to show his wife, his community. That respect for himself
is how he survives.”


The Girl Next Door

Ginny Aimes, Perry Mason

The shadows can’t exist without the light. Something or someone has to be there to remind us that not everything is dark, if only to warn us that things can still get worse. Ginny Aimes (Katherine Waterston) is at first a cipher. “She’s a little bit of a conundrum in that she’s very recently got a job as a schoolteacher, and she doesn’t mince her words,” Adair explains. “At the same time, as a schoolteacher, we wanted to make her accessible. We found a print that was appropriate to that time period for the bodice. It’s a deliberate choice because the first time she meets Perry Mason he says something and she quips back, and stops him in his tracks, but she does it with a smile on her face. So given the strength of the actress, we all felt that gave the character balance.”


Girl Friday

Della Street, Perry Mason

Sassy, stubborn and inevitably right all along, the Girl Friday is right there to take a letter or extol a little vital plot exposition. To bring this character to life, Adair paid careful attention to the development of Della Street (Juliet Rylance) since season 1. “She would’ve said, ‘I am on a budget, but this is really important if I’m going to move forward and achieve my dream of being a lawyer one day and be taken seriously with a seat at the table.’ In reality, she only had three suits. But then I designed four or five blouses, and extra skirts so looks could get mixed and matched.”


The True Believer

Varian Fry, Transatlantic

A knight in shining pinstripes, the True Believer has a saintly mission. He may hate to cut corners, but when the stakes are high, sometimes rules are meant to be broken. When researching Varian Fry (Cory Michael Smith), costume designer Justine Seymour had access to some of the best possible primary materials. “Varian was a bit of a perfectionist, so his memoirs described the contents of his suitcase when he left New York. He actually mentioned that he is a Brooks Brothers man. That immediately opened a window into his world—very classically put together, no fuss, tastefully cut, but not overly expensive.” The result is buttoned-down, meticulous, and upright. The perfect face for a clandestine effort to smuggle refugees out of Europe before World War II.


The Ingenue

Mary Jayne Gold, Transatlantic

The rich girl who sometimes stumbles, sometimes sprints to the wrong part of town. This ingenue is an idealistic uptown girl, but with eyes wide open, and ready to do what needs to be done. To portray Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs) during her time helping smuggle refugees out of France in the early years of World War II, Seymour knew that to portray the wealthy American heiress, she’d have to stand out. “When I read about her, she just sounded like—in Britain we say ‘Jolly Hockey stick’—in everything she did, she really went all out. Her surname is Gold and she’s the bank, as she calls herself. Mary Jayne needed to really pop when we first saw her walking across the piazza. I wanted her to sort of be a ray of sunshine in her yellow dress.”


The Man of Action

Albert Hirschman, Transatlantic

He has an unwavering sense of justice and passion for protecting the innocent. What makes the man of action different from other heroes is that he has skin in the game and is always ready to jump into the fray. Describing the refugee-turned-rescuer Albert Hirschman (Lucas Englander) in a time of war, Seymour notes, “People were just being ripped away from family and friendships they’d forged. Being a refugee and made homeless and stateless is really gut-wrenching.” When someone rises above those circumstances, it is worth special note. “I really love his sort of rugged masculinity. Albert got a cool leather jacket to become the Harrison Ford of my world.”